Fusebox Festival Wrap-Up

During Under The Radar in January we got to talking with Fusebox‘s Ron Berry and told him some of the ideas we were working on. Ever-enthusiastic and up for new things, he invited us down to Austin to try some stuff out as part of the festival’s “Hybrid Arts Summit”. We just got back and boy, howdy, did we have a good time! We did three programs: a panel on performance and context, a community conversation based on the “Long Table” idea and a re-imagination of the artist talkback called “The Impersonation Game”. Not only did all three programs o better than we could have hoped, but we got to meet lots of cool folks, see some shows, eat, drink and just generally have a grand time! We hope we can come back next year for some more…and if you’ve never been, schedule your vacation now for Fusebox 2013! It is hard to beat the combination of laid-back hospitality and good energy with a creative community and a diverse and a thoughtful, well-balanced program of cutting-edge performance.

We arrived in Austin Thursday evening and headed over to sometime-Culturebot contributor Tim Braun‘s place, who was kind enough to put us up and play host for the weekend. I met Tim back when he was in NYC working at HERE Arts Center and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. He has been living, teaching and writing in Austin and now heads up the Fusebox writing/blogging/social media efforts. Every bit the man-about-town, he kept us busy and introduced us to tons of wonderful people and places. Thanks Tim!!

We put our stuff in Tim’s apartment, met is dog Dusty and headed over to the Fusebox Festival Hub, which would serve as homebase for the next few days. There we met up with Ron and the rest of his team – Elle, Natalie, Brad and more – to get oriented. The Hub was in the TOPS building, a former office supply warehouse. They tricked it out with a nice stage set-up, a bar and a gallery space, including a big red swing. Outside at the Hub they had a beer garden/hang out area, with these sustainable eco-chair thingies:

And really cool inflatable seating modules designed by San Francisco’s Rebar Studio. Here’s a pic from a different installation of the same furniture:

This furniture and other production aspects of the festival were being included in a parallel investigation of sustainability conducted by Ian Garrett of the Center for Sustainable Practice In The Arts. Not sure when they’re going to post their findings/research, stay tuned for more information.

After getting the lay of the land we headed over to the Buenos Aires Cafe Este for a delicious Argentine-inflected dinner before heading off to the Salvage Vanguard Theater to see Phil Soltanoff’s new show “An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk”. Working from a thoughtful script by Joe Diebes and in collaboration with designer/programmer Rob Ramirez, Soltanoff has staged a lecture performed by a digital William Shatner puppet. Taking snippets of dialogue from classic Star Trek footage and editing them together, Captain Kirk delivers a speech on art, science and the binaries that we have come to accept as defining experience. The monitor from which Kirk speaks is moved around stage by an actor, in this case a Japanese woman, who at one point breaks the flow by delivering a monologue, in Japanese, about moving to Austin and becoming fascinated by drag culture.

The show raises some interesting questions, the script is thoughtful and entertaining. At one point the Shatner puppet starts talking about “phenomenon” and I went into an internal loop of contemplation about the limitations of language, the residue and transformation of meaning over time, modes of cognition, embodied vs. virtual presence, etc. The night I saw it there were a few technical glitches – surprisingly not in the software but in the connection between input cables – that broke up the flow. In general the Shatner dialogue is very choppy and there’s something at once hypnotic and distancing about a voice constructed entirely of one-word snippets. It reinforces the falsity and computerized construction of the character, while also opening the question of what this would be like if it were smoothed out to appear more “natural”. Still, very cool stuff and a good start to things.

After Phil’s show we headed back to the Festival Hub to hang out, drink and mingle while chowing down on a late night snack of delicious sandwiches from Lucky’s Puccias. (Hey Lucky! Bring your truck to NYC!!). We saw lots of pals from NYC (Hey Eliza Bent!) and met new folks from Austin (Hey Graham Schmidt!) and from other places as well. Good times, good times.

Friday morning we managed to rally from a late night and make it over to The Hub a little after 11AM to catch the second half of a conversation between Wayne Ashley and Ron Berry. Wayne has been curating and producing high-tech performance for years and is partnering with Fusebox on an ongoing basis to bring work to Austin. They talked about some of the projects Wayne has going (Verdensteatret, ERS/Ben Rubin collaboration “Shuffle”, Kurt Hentschlager’s Zee, etc.) and talked a bit about what is to come.

After that was the first Culturebot program – I led a panel on “Performance and Context”. Originally this was going to revisit the conversation that we did at Under The Radar, but between then and now, even in a few short months, it seemed like the conversation has shifted. Especially in a town like Austin and the way Ron has curated his festival, the “binary” if you will, of visual art vs. performance seemed less pressing than a wider discussion of how context relates to creative practice and how that informs the work. So I invited Austin-based artists Wura-Natasha Ogunji and Michael Smith, Phil Soltanoff and curator Hilary Graves from Austin’s Lora Reynolds Gallery to talk. It was a wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation. It was streamed on NewPlayTv but they missed the first half. Here’s what they captured:

Next we went outside and joined Meredith Powell from Art Alliance Austin and Shea Little from Big Medium for an open discussion on collaboration and community-building in the arts. It was a very engaged conversation with a number of representatives of different parts of Austin’s arts scene. I got to bring in some of my experience from my other job and share thoughts/ideas around artist engagement with urban planning and development, cross-disciplinary (and cross-sector) collaboration, introducing the artist’s voice into community engagement strategies, etc. It was also really helpful in that this discussion set the stage for the next day’s “Hair of the Dog Performance Potlatch” long-table discussion on creativity, community and place.

With a few hours open and no specific plans on a hot, beautiful sunshine-y day, we headed down to the Yellow Jacket Social Club for some conversation y cervezas. There was a whole contingent of kids from Minneapolis who had road-tripped down and they joined Jeremy, Tim, Meredith and myself and we whiled away the afternoon talking art until finally it was time to take our leave and see a show.

Jeremy and I headed over to The Long Center to see the Dutch company Wunderbaum’s Songs At The End Of The World. I first saw Wunderbaum back in March 2006 when I flew out to REDCAT to see their show Lost Chord Radio and have thought about them a lot over the past few years. They are one of the few theater groups that really integrate music seamlessly into performance; they have a quirky sense of humor that balances well with their musical aesthetic and are all quite talented performers. Songs At The End Of The World is a series of vignettes loosely based around the idea of a group of people in Antarctica, a kind of last stop on the road to nowhere, a place where people go to think about what might have been if only, if only… I really enjoyed the show, it wasn’t quite as evocative as I remember Lost Chord Radio being, the stories are more personal and less mythic/fantastic, but it is fun and well-done, also in a music town like Austin, this is definitely the kind of crossover work that will attract new audiences that might not normally go to theater/performance. If you find yourself in the same place as Wunderbaum, don’t miss the chance to check them out!

After Songs At The End Of The World we headed over to Lucky Lady Bingo to see 600 Highwaymen‘s new show This Great Country, a re-constructed staging of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. 600 Highwaymen’s Abby and Michael are based in Brooklyn, but the piece was built over the course of several months in residence in Austin. Set in a sad Bingo Parlor that reeks of ancient cigarette smoke, futility and desperation, you couldn’t find a more evocative site for Death of Salesman than perhaps a rundown casino on seedy end of The Strip in Vegas. Using a combination of Big Dance Theater-style movement theater with Richard Maxwell-style affectless acting, the 600 Highwaymen production strips away all the fake pathos of method acting and “naturalism” to let the words and the situation stand out in stark relief. It seems like Miller over-wrote the original and this version is strategically edited. While still long (clocking in at about two hours with no intermission) it still clips along faster than the original.

One of the real innovations of this production is cross-casting, having multiple actors play multiple roles across age, race and gender. The cast was all local and ranged in age from 7-70 with a wide variety of experience levels. The scene where Howard, Willy’s boss, fires him was played entirely by kids – a young boy playing Howard, fired a teenage/early 20’s (boyish) girl in a suit. It was effective and affecting. Willy’s wife Linda was played alternately by an age-appropriate older actress with a physical handicap and a girl who must have been no older than 12 years old, but who acted with a professionalism, grace and focus you rarely see in actors twice, three times her age.

Ashley Kaye Johnson - photo by Will Hollis Photography

Abby and Michael used a variety of “post-modern” techniques to open up the text and the story in powerful ways. At the end of the show when Linda is sitting in the empty bingo hall after Willy’s funeral talking to herself she refers to the fact that she just made the last payment on their house and says, “We’re free” and it just feels like a knife in the gut. It is an indictment of our times – we think we’re free but we’re not, we give over our lives to an American Dream predicated on material wealth, on the meaningless social interactions of buying and selling, we deceive ourselves into thinking that these interpersonal transactions have meaning and connection, we delude ourselves and in the end of the day we’re not free at all, we have played a rigged game in which there are no winners. Here we are in a bingo parlor with a bunch of losing cards and an empty wallet, kids vanished into their own unrealizable dreams, in a house we spent a lifetime trying to hold onto through mortgages and threat of repossession, a dream all too quickly fading from view.

Apart from appreciating the work in and of itself, I was also thinking about this show in light of earlier discussion about visual arts, community, collaboration and sustainability.

From a visual arts perspective I think you can look at how 600 Highwaymen built this show as using the methodologies of social practice to construct the performance. They embedded themselves as artists in the community, chose a text/idea that would be resonant, they locally sourced the performers, doing outreach over time (more than 6 weeks) to identify participants and engage them in the creative process. They built a community and leveraged its resources to implement the project in an affordable, sustainable way. It is a great arts production model that touches on so many relevant issues of the moment. If it wasn’t so late and I wasn’t so tired I would investigate further. Maybe at some point in the near future. But I think this show, like Aaron Landsman’s City Council Meeting, is pointing to an exciting direction for theater/performance.

This Great Country ran pretty late and by the time we got back to The Hub we had already missed a performance by Christeene, which was supposed to be both shocking and enthralling. We managed to stay there talking and chatting til nigh on 2:30AM when we headed back to Tim’s for some rest before returning to The Hub the next day at 10AM.

Saturday started with the Culturebot Hair of the Dog Performance Potlatch where we used the “Long Table” format as the basis for a conversation around art and place. Some of the folks at the table besides me and Jeremy included Caroline Reck of Glass Half Full Theatre and Graham Schmidt of Breaking String, Brian Osborne, Abby and Michael from 600 Highwaymen and a bunch of other folks:

The conversation picked up on a lot of topics we had started the day before: collaboration, community engagement, tour-ability, scalability, sustainable practices.  What really characterized the conversation was a sense of possibility and “can-do” attitude, as opposed to the normal, defeatist, “There’s no money, there’s no audience” litany of complaints so many arts conversations devolve into. We talked about the role art can play in urban development and planning, about the need to be involved in the community at large and be an engaged citizen, about how traditional “marketing” doesn’t really seem to be relevant so much anymore, and a lot more. There seems to be a confluence between artistic practices for creating work and other social/political values.

One thing we talked about is an idea that’s been around for awhile but seems really viable now.  We were talking about the challenges of creating work in places like Austin, Seattle, Portland and Philadelphia –  touring them and also building awareness of that work in bigger cities like NYC, Chicago and Los Angeles. Some of the Austinites were talking about how, since there was a large student population, people would engage deeply for 4-8 years and then move on to other places. We started trying to flesh out the idea of what it would look like if we put some intentionality behind that, thinking about “incubator cities” and leveraging the unique resources of a given city to develop projects. Maybe some cities have a lot of space, others have a certain focus on technology or a certain population… how can we create a development network that lowers creation costs by building a project in the most fertile place? And then having a mechanism to tour. Or how do we build shows that are shows that are designed to tour. This also kind of tapped into idea of cultural biodiversity and how does work  reflect the region in which it is made but retain relevance on a national/international level?

We talked about resource and information sharing – what if there was a web-based clearing house for information on, say, how to build a raft that floats down a river and doesn’t fall apart? Or best practices for community engagement? Some way for artists to share experience and creative practice?

We also had a lively discussion about changing the framework around how we talk about our work, trying to move away from the entertainment/commodity model and associated language and move into something more meaningful. One big thing we talked about for a while was growing audiences and how do we make the case for what we do? It was suggested that what live performance does, ideally, is to provoke not just emotions but thought and critical evaluation of self and society. It opens us up to possibility. In a culture where that is not necessarily highly valued, how do we advocate for mindfulness and thoughtfulness as a cultural value and propose the arts as an agent of that change?

I wish we had recorded the conversation because it was really great – I think people had a good time. I know that we sparked ideas because as we walked away from the table people gathered together in small groups to keep the conversation going. Next time we’ll take better notes and aim to make this an iterative process!

After the Hair of the Dog Performance Potlatch we went into the Hub to see Jaime Salvador Castillo interview Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz about her work, particularly her “Ask Chuleta” project. See below:

It was a really fun conversation with an artist I previously hadn’t known about.

Immediately after that was Culturebot’s final public program of the festival, The Impersonation Game. This is a concept we got from the European collective Everybodys and we were excited to try it out. Basically the idea is simple – you invite Artist A to see the work of Artist B without any pre-knowledge or relationship. Then you do an artist talkback where Artist A pretends to be Artist B. The idea is to open up the possibility for new interpretations of the work and also to give the audience a bit of distance from the artist, hopefully to liberate them to ask questions they might not otherwise broach.

In this case we got three Austin artists – Allison Orr, Graham Schmidt and Kirk Lynn – to pretend to be Gob Squad and answer questions about Super Night Shot. This would have been awesome in and of itself BUT was made even better by the fact that, unbeknownst to us, Kirk Lynn had actually sent his friend Aron to pretend to be him. So Aron pretended to be Kirk pretending to be Gob Squad. Even better than that was that three of the members of Gob Squad were in the audience and even asked their impersonators questions! Jeremy started out interviewing them all and then turned it over to the audience for Q&A. It was very funny but it was also very revealing. We were a little nervous about it at first, but everyone had a great time and thought the conversation was not just fun and funny, but relevant. New Play TV livestreamed it but apparently without audio. Bummer! But here’s a picture of Gob Squad and Impersonators after the fact:

Oh boy oh boy! On the heels of our triumph Team Culturebot went and grabbed some beers and BBQ to pass the time ’til dinner, when we met Tim Braun and Mark (?) and went to Contigo where we stumbled on a crawfish boil:

And then over to some other restaurant for spicy margaritas and delicious melt-y queso.

Thoroughly stuffed and maybe a little bit tipsy, we headed over to The Off Center to check out Brian Osborne’s The WORD: A House Party For Jesus. Brian portrays a down-on-his-luck preacher who got the call as a young boy and knows no other life. Dogged by his past and struggling to keep solvent or at least marginally above abject poverty (both spiritual and material) he wrestles with himself, his God and you. The show really does travel light – a tent, a suitcase and a few props – and it seemed to speak to so many of the ideas and issues we had been discussing all weekend. Osborne was funny even as he inspired pathos as the all-too-human preacher, getting us caught up in the action and singing along to Jesus. Good times! Hallelujah!

Not yet ready to let the good times end, we headed from The Off Center back to the Hub in time to catch the last few songs of Holcombe Waller‘s set. More hanging out, drinking, joking & mingling… and then a crack and a crash and the skies opened up and by gum if it wasn’t a downpour like we hadn’t seen in ages! Everyone headed from the beer garden into the Hub proper just in time for a funky festive freak-out with Foot Patrol, a band led by TJ Wade – a blind singer and keyboard virtuoso who happens to have a strong attraction to feet. Think I’m kidding? Oh no, check it out:

Finally around 3AM it was time to call it a night. We bid adieu to all our friends old and new and braved the downpour to drive pack to Tim’s house for a quick bit of sleep before heading to the airport the next day and back to NYC. Team Culturebot took it to Fusebox and rocked it. Big shout-out to Ron for having us, Tim for hosting us and all the artists, audiences and Austinites for making our trip such a resounding success and funky good time!!

Until next year – stay classy Austin!

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